January by R. S. Thomas

The fox drags its wounded belly

Over the snow, the crimson seeds

Of blood burst with a mild explosion,

Soft as excrement, bold as roses.

 

Over the snow that feels no pity,

Whose white hands can give no healing,

The fox drags its wounded belly.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Song At The Year’s Turning (1955)

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I Was Washing At Night Out In The Yard by Osip Mandelstam

I was washing at night out in the yard,

the heavens glowing with rough stars,

a star-beam like salt upon an axe,

the water butt cold and brim full.

 

A padlock makes the gate secure,

and conscience gives sternness to the earth –

hard to find a standard anywhere

purer than the truth of new-made cloth.

 

A star melts in the water butt like salt,

cold water in the butt is blacker still,

death is more pure, disaster saltier

and earth more truthful and more terrible.

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(Tbilisi, 1921)

translated by Peter France


 

A poem written in respone to the news of Nikolay Gumilyov‘s execution.

When A Man Dies by Anna Akhmatova

When a man dies

His portraits change.

His eyes look at you

Differently and his lips smile

A different smile. I noticed this

Returning from a poet’s funeral.

Since then I have seen it verified

Often and my theory is true.

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova), 1940

– from Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book)

– translation by D. M. Thomas

Retrospect And Forecast by Clark Ashton Smith

Turn round, O Life, and know with eyes aghast

The breast that fed thee – Death, disguiseless, stern:

Even now, within my mouth, from tomb and urn,

The dust is sweet. All nurture that thou hast

Was once as thou, and fed with lips made fast

On Death, whose sateless mouth it fed in turn.

Kingdoms abased, and Thrones that starward yearn,

All are but ghouls that batten on the past.

 

Monsterous and dread, must it forever abide,

This inescapable alternity?

Must beauty blossom, rooted in decay,

And night devour its flaming hues always?

Sickening, will Life not turn eventually,

Or ravenous Death at last be satisfied?

 

by Clark Ashton Smith

Red Nosed Frost [extract] by Nikolay Nekrasov

Not the autumn wind in the forest,

not streams hurtling down to the plains –

what we hear is Frost the Commander,

patrolling his far-flung domains.

 

Has snow been swept by the blizzards

over every pathway and track?

Is there any bare ground still showing,

any last brown fissure or crack?

 

Have the oak trees been handsomely dappled,

are the tops of the pines fluffed just right?

Have the ice floes been shackled together

so that every lake is gripped tight?

 

Frost comes striding over the treetops;

shards of ice crackle under his tread.

Lord Frost moves closer and closer;

beams of sunlight dance in his beard.

 

What pathway is closed to a wizard?

Ever nearer the widow he draws.

Now Frost is looming above her,

rehearsing his wintry laws.

 

There he stands in a pine tree,

beating time with his cane,

boasting of his own glory

and repeating his old refrain:

 

‘No need to be bashful, sweet maiden,

see how fine a Commander I am!

Speak truthfully now: have you ever

glimpsed a more handsome young man?

 

‘Blizzards, downpours and whirlwinds –

I can quieten them all in a trice;

I can stroll out over the ocean

and build myself chambers of ice.

 

‘One breath – and the greatest of rivers

lie silenced beneath my yoke,

transformed to the strongest of bridges,

broad roads for the merchant folk.

 

‘I love dropping down into graves

to scatter diamonds over the dead,

to freeze the blood in their veins

and ice the brains in their heads.

 

‘I love frightening a lonely robber

riding home with a purse he’s plundered:

in the depth of the forest silence

I make branches resound like thunder.

 

‘Old women go rushing back home,

their heads full of spirits and devils.

But there’s more pleasure still to be had

with drunkards returning from revels.

 

‘I don’t need chalk to whiten their faces!

I set their noses ablaze without fire!

I freeze beards to reins in a tangle

not even an axe can sever!

 

‘I’m rich, there’s no counting my treasure;

my fortune’s as great as the world.

Every day I bejewel my kingdom

anew with silver and pearls.

 

‘Dear Maiden, I bid you now enter

my empire. Let me make you my queen!

We shall reign in glory all winter,

then let summer slip by in a dream.

 

‘Come, maiden, and let me warm you

in a palace of pale blue ice!’

So Lord Frost sings out above her

as he swings his sparkling mace.

 

‘Are you warm enough there, dear maiden?’

he calls from high in the pine.

‘Oh yes,’ the young widow answers –

and icy shivers run down her spine.

 

Now Frost has dropped down lower,

his mace swinging ever so near,

and he whispers softly and tenderly:

‘Warm enough?’ ‘Oh yes, my dear!’

 

Warm enough – but what does she feel?

Frost’s breath has already numbed her

and needles of ice from his beard,

though colder and sharper than steel,

are lulling her into slumber.

 

‘Are you warm enough now?’ Frost whispers,

his arms now encircling her waist –

and she hears not Frost but Proklyusha

and all she sees is long past.

 

On her lips and her eyes and her shoulders

Darya feels the wizard’s long kisses –

and she sees not Frost but her husband

and she drinks in his honeyed whispers.

 

He’s talking to her of a wedding,

his words so caressing and sweet

that Darya’s eyes are now closing

and her axe lies still by her feet.

 

And the arc of a smile now parts

the poor lips of the wretched widow.

White flakes now cover her eyelids

and needles of ice her brow…

 

A lump of snow falls on Darya

as a squirrel takes a flying leap,

but Darya does not lift a finger;

she’s frozen, enchanted, asleep.

 

by Николай Алексеевич Некрасов (Nikolay Alexeyevich Nekrasov)

(1864)

translated by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk

Muse by Anna Akhmatova

When at night I wait for her to come,

Life, it seems, hangs by a single strand.

What are glory, youth, freedom, in comparison

With the dear welcome guest, a flute in hand?

 

She enters now. Pushing her veil aside,

She stares through me with her attentiveness.

I question her: ‘And were you Dante’s guide,

Dictating the Inferno?’ She answers: ‘Yes.’

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1924)

from Тростник (Cane) / Из шести книг (From the Six Books)

translation by D. M. Thomas

 

[ Excerpt from] Night In A Trench by Velimir Khlebnikov

We need flowers to lay on coffins,

but coffins tell us we are flowers

and last no longer than a flower.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1920)

translated by Robert Chandler